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Senate Finance approves intermediate court bill in quick meeting

MORGANTOWN – The Senate Finance Committee took just 30 minutes Friday morning to review and approve the Intermediate Court of Appeals bill – SB 275.

The panel made a few changes from what came over from Judiciary – the most notable being a raise in the judges’ pay to reflect pay raises for other judges approved last year.

The new court would begin work on July 1, 2022. It would have northern and southern districts with three judges each, paid $142,500 per year. The bill originally put the pay at $130,000, but last year’s SB 597 raised circuit judge pay, effective July 1, 2022, at $138,600 and Supreme Court justice pay at $149,600; the change keeps the new judges’ pay in the middle.

Judges will serve 12-year terms. The six judges would initially be appointed by the governor to terms of two, four and six years, and elected thereafter. This reflects a change from the Judiciary version that had different staggered terms.

Under the new structure, the Workers Compensation Office of Judges, which handles workers’ compensation cases, would stop hearing cases June 30, 2022, and be terminated Sept. 30, 2022; all appeals would then go directly to the workers’ compensation Board of Review (raised from three members to five by Finance), and then appealed from there to the intermediate court.

The intermediate court would also handle appeals from family court; circuit court civil, guardianship and conservator cases; agency orders; and Health Care Authority certificate of need orders.

The state Supreme Court would be the next and final level of appeal. The Supreme Court would have the discretion to review or turn away intermediate court appeals.

Currently, the Supreme Court hears all appeals and issues either a signed ruling, when new precedent is established, or memorandum decisions. In 2020 it received 840 new appeals and ruled on 917, clearing away some older cases. The 840 filings is down from the record high of 3,954 in 2007.

Intermediate court opponents have long argued that the court’s diminished caseload and its new system of issuing a decision in every case (at one time it turned most cases away) makes the intermediate court unnecessary.

A Supreme Court fiscal note puts the estimated startup cost for the court at just over $8.9 million, with an estimated annual cost after that of $7.6 million.

That cost will be offset somewhat, according to a fiscal note from the Insurance Commission. Eliminating the Office of Judges would reduce the operating costs of the Insurance Commissioner by an estimated $2,025,776 by Fiscal Year 2024 and annually thereafter.

Discussion was minimal. Sen. Stephen Baldwin, D-Greenbrier, expressed disappointment that no one from the Supreme Court was there to explain how it crafted the fiscal note.

Sen. Ron Stollings, D-Boone, said that after speaking with respected lawyers on both sides of the issue, he believes, “We’re trying to resolve something that doesn’t exist. This clearly is not needed. It’s a waste of money.”

And, he said, the Office of Judges does good work and shouldn’t be eliminated.

None of the senators spoke in favor of the bill. It passed in a divided voice vote and goes to the full Senate.

TWEET David Beard@dbeardtdp